Sunshine Week Puts Spotlight on Accessing Government Information

Sunday marks the start of Sunshine Week, an effort to highlight the role of freedom of information at all levels of the U.S. government.

The week brings together a range of groups including media outlets, government officials, nonprofit organizations, schools, and libraries in an effort to promote and explain the importance of open government and how individuals and groups can access government data.

Kevin Goldberg, the legal counsel for the American Society of News Editors — the group that organizes Sunshine Week along with Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press — told VOA that one of the main goals for the week is to educate people on what it means to have an open government and why that is important.

He said open government laws allow citizens to ask and investigate questions such as “Is my city the next Flint?” referring to the town in Michigan where actions by government officials led to the contamination of local water sources beginning in 2014.

He said accessing government records allows people to protect themselves and inform others.

“It is important for people to understand these rights belong to everyone. It is not just a media issue,” Goldberg said.

​Freedom of Information Act

One of the tools that both citizens and journalists have to help them access government information is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), a federal law that took effect in 1967 that requires government agencies to release most documents upon request.

Requests can be denied for only nine reasons, including privacy and national security concerns.

The U.S. Justice Department maintains a website on how to file FIOA requests and says most requests are typically answered within one month, but says agencies can also receive an extension for more complex requests. Anyone can file a FOIA request, not just journalists.

The website WithoutFOIA chronicles news stories that could not have been told without FOIA, reported by both small newspapers and major news organizations that span a range of topics including drug enforcement, federal food inspections, and the treatment of undocumented immigrant children at the U.S. border.

State and local jurisdictions often have similar disclosure laws to FOIA that allow people both in and out of the news business to find out what is happening in their communities and hold local officials accountable.

Goldberg said Sunshine Week gives journalists the ability to “really speak out on the importance of open records as a group.” He said journalists tend not to want to become part of the story, which he said is usually a good thing, but said in this case they can help to explain the usefulness of open records.

Role of journalism

During Sunshine Week, major news organizations work together to showcase journalism’s role in promoting transparency in government. This year, their focus is on the loss of local news coverage and what that means for communities.

The Associated Press analyzed data compiled by the University of North Carolina and found that more than 1,400 cities in the United States have lost a newspaper in the past 15 years.

“The loss of a reliable local news source has many consequences for the community. One of them is the inability to watchdog the actions of government agencies and elected officials,” the report said.

The Associated Press also cited research from the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Notre Dame, which found that municipal borrowing costs increase after a newspaper ceases publication. The research found that once a newspaper closes, local officials are often emboldened to spend more, driving up project and financing costs.

While Goldberg acknowledged that the decline of local journalism could affect the public’s access to information, he noted that because of advances in technology, members of the public have a greater ability to distribute information than they had before, including using social media as well as writing blogs and op-eds.

“They can go to those in government and demand action,” he said.

​Challenges to open government

Goldberg said the U.S. government is generally becoming more open over time with “more tools at our disposal to unlock information.”

He said in the past, the main source of information about the government would be the president holding a press conference or journalists making a formal request. 

“Now, there are so many ways to proactively make information available,” he said.

However, he said some of the current challenges to open government include moving from a paper-based records system in government to a digital-based one, and in maintaining transparency around policing.

A spate of high-profile police shootings in recent years has led to more police departments requiring officers to wear body cameras. While the intent of the cameras is to improve accountability at police departments, they have also led to a debate over how public the video footage from body and dashboard cameras should be.

Transparency advocates argue they should almost always be made available to the public while some police unions argue the video footage is a personal record, akin to personal notes, and say their disclosure to the public could affect privacy rights as well as the safety of officers.

In some communities and states, the issue is being settled in court. Last month, a state appeals court in New York ruled that police body camera footage is subject to public disclosure.

For Sunshine week, the Associated Press is re-launching its Sunshine Hub, a digital tool that tracks anti- and pro-transparency legislation in every state along with an investigation into how local law enforcement agencies handle requests to release police video footage.

Sunshine Week began in 2005 and is held each year in mid-March to coincide with the birthday of James Madison, the father of the U.S. Constitution and a key advocate of the U.S. Bill of Rights.